It’s not easy being green: a post about Bordeaux, carbon and biodynamics

Two relatively unrelated bits of reading got me going on the whole question of wine and the environment, yesterday. The first one was a  Decanter News item about the Bordeaux wine industry’s Carbon initiative, and the steps it was proposing to curb the region’s greenhouse gas emissions (thanks to Tim, from Winecast, for tweeting it). The second one is a post on Alder Yarrow’ Vinography blog reacting to a (hard-hitting? scathing? vicious?) article in SF Weekly denouncing biodynamics as “Voodoo on the Vine”.

In the Decanter article, I was surprised to see how little the Bordeaux industry seems to be questioning vineyard practices, in its assessment of its carbon footprint. Of the 200,000 tons of carbon produced, says the report (as quoted in the Decanter article): “45% came from production of materials such as glass and cork,12% through moving personnel around,10% on vinification processes, and 18% on transportation of wines.”

According to this assessment, sales trips would account for more carbon than the chemical components of viticulture (like herbicides, pesticides, etc.). I’m skeptical. One possible explanation is that Bordeaux would only be counting carbon, and not greenhouse gases as a whole: agriculture produces more methane and nitrous oxide (NO2) than carbon dioxide. I’m not sure. But the fact that reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides is an afterthought in this whole assessment seems odd to me.

In the second case, I was a little depressed at seeing how the SF Weekly writer, Joe Eskenazi, described the “aggressive marketing” of biodynamic wines and the “kooky” reliance of biodynamic producers on supernatural explanations. Many of the examples he gives (like some of Rudolf Steiner‘s more esoterical beliefs) are quite striking and troubling – even though his disgust at seeing blood from cowheads is pretty ridiculous too. Eskenazi is clearly out to show that biodynamics is some kind of extremely weird sect, and to do that, he takes the most extreme examples he can find.

Funny enough, though, when I discussed biodynamics with most producers I’ve met, their goal was not to connect with astral forces so much as to reinforce the vines’ natural defences, helping vines dig deep into the soil to get more from the soil, and to get better juice by promoting the health and harmony of the vineyard’s ecosystem. Many will discuss the visible transformation of manure and compost left in cow horns under the ground over the winter, not in terms of the elemental connections of cows to the Earth forces, but because of the mineral qualities that in all likelihood emerge from this change in appearance, smell, texture – in other words, biochemical composition. And in the end, their point is the following: the vines are healthier, the wine is better, and natural life in all forms is teeming throughout the vineyards.

And that’s where I feel a lot closer to Alder Yarrow’s point of view, from his frustration about the “maddening, paradoxical mixture of scientifically sound farming practices and utterly ridiculous new-age mysticism” found in the realm of biodynamics, to the clear qualities he sees in the wines themselves:

Some of my favorite wines in the world; some of the best wines I have ever tasted in my life; some of the wineries that seem to consistently make some of the highest quality wines I have ever experienced are produced biodynamically, and I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Again, maybe a lot of these discussions, whether in Bordeaux’ Bilan Carbone or in the louder and weirder side of biodynamics, are brought on by the fact that being “green” is “cool”. In other words, by an interest in marketing, image, market share, etc., rather than a primary interest in making great wine in a healthy environment. I wrote a first post on my concerns about the potential greenwashing of organic/biodynamic wines (now including some very interesting comments by one Ned Goodwin) back in the spring, a post that, in many ways, corresponds to Alder Yarrow’s take on biodynamics.

I’m still as concerned about the tendency to put marketing and sales arguments above environmental arguments. A recent report published in the magazine of the Champagne winegrowers professional association, is entitled “Carbon assessment: a selling point”, and insists on the fact that going green would be good for sales – and that it may become essential, eventually, to enter certain markets. And here I was, naively thinking that reducing one’s environmental impact was about the environment.

As Alder points out in his blog post about skepticism and biodynamics:

[while] some wine producers are moving to make biodynamic wine because they think it will sell better, there are many more producers who have been making wine biodynamically for years, even decades without ever telling anyone about it, least of all the people who buy their wine.

In my opinion, the same applies to green initiatives in the wine world in general. Let’s just hope that, over time, we see (or actually, don’t see) more of the latter and that the former stumble and fail because their focus is in the wrong place. A healthy environment and better wine should be the main motivation here.

Carbon zero? Well, looking more closely…

In a previous post, I’d spent a certain amount of time exploring the limits and vagaries of “green” wine. I’ve always been skeptical of full-frontal claims of virtue, which seem to be as much about marketing than about actual environmental concerns. I tend to feel more in tune with winemakers who go the green way more naturally, so to speak, and don’t talk so much about it. There are limits to the claims of greenness, and pitfalls to promising too much.

Case in point: Grove Mill winery, a great New Zealand outfit that has laid a claim to being the world’s first CarboNZero winery. They put a lot of effort into this, even factoring in the shipping to Britain in their calculations. But guess what. Standards are changing for the CarbonZero program, so (more…)

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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